Dmitry Shlapentokh: Remaking History in a Kiev Museum

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor of history at Indiana University South Bend]

Constructing a new national identity often requires a new vision of the past. In Ukraine, this phenomenon can be seen in several of Kiev's museums.

Exhibits at the Museum of the Army of Ukraine show the Ukrainians as European people who enjoyed monolithic unity while busily liberating themselves from the"Asiatic" Russians.

Ukrainian history has emerged differently in the other major national museum, the Museum of Ukrainian History. Russia is still seen as a major problem, but the flavor of the museum is distinctly different. Russians often disappear from sight, and Ukraine's conflicts with everybody else are also downplayed. In fact, Ukrainians are presented as self-sustained, peaceful people who preserve their distinct lifestyles despite being incorporated into a foreign empire. It seems this image of Ukraine's past -- and implicitly, its present -- is what Ukrainian authorities have tried to develop and inculcate.

The arrangement of the displays in the Museum of Ukrainian History was markedly different from what I saw in my youth. There weren't many changes in the hall dedicated to the Stone and Bronze Ages, but later periods had gaping omissions. Events that were prominent in Soviet days disappeared or were marginalized. There was practically nothing about the Mongols, presumably because featuring the Mongol invasion and Mongol yoke would require elaborating on Russia's positive role in fighting the invaders.

The Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 -- the lynchpin of Ukrainian history that ultimately led to Ukraine's incorporation into Russia -- was reduced to a marginal episode. The famous painting depicting this event that had hung prominently in the museum in Soviet times was taken away. A small note informed visitors that there was no Ukrainian-Russian unification as such, but rather a Russian"protectorate" in which Ukraine preserved independence -- or some sort of autonomy that was close to independence.

The reign of Peter the Great and his fight with the Swedes on Ukrainian territory also posed a big dilemma for the exhibition organizers. Celebrating Peter's victories was out of the question. One option for the museum was to stress the glory of Ivan Mazepa, the Ukrainian noble who took the Swedish side in the battle and tried to save his people from the rule of the brutal Asiatics. The other option was to ignore the event entirely, which is precisely what the organizers did. As a result, Peter the Great and the Battle of Poltava disappeared from the exhibit....

The presentation of Ukrainian history in the Museum of Ukrainian History seems to be the image that the Ukrainian elite is trying to spread. It involves emphasizing Ukraine as an independent political force and ignoring or minimizing all events where Russia played a prominent and positive role.

I found the same version of history in the Museum of National Art. At one exhibition dealing with modern art, the curator explained that after 1991, the paintings dealing with the Great Patriotic War -- which were used by Moscow during the Soviet period to emphasize the unity of Ukrainians and Russians -- had been removed. Instead, there was a big painting that displayed the entry into Kiev of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, one of Ukraine's greatest national heroes.

After my visit of Kiev's museums, I became even more convinced of the validity of the quote attributed to Gregory Bateson, the British anthropologist, social scientist and linguist:"History is as unpredictable as the future."

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